WPFD 2017: engaging critical minds

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Every year, May 3 presents the opportunity to reiterate the importance of defendiing press freedom around the world, by recognising the work of those that champion this cause and highlighting the major challenges they face.

UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event brings together journalists, media experts, government representatives and other stakeholders to address the most pressing issues facing the global media freedom community.

This year, the event is being held under the theme “Critical Minds for Critical Times: the media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies,” highlighting the importance of responsible journalism to nurturing engaged consumers who are able to discern between accurate news and misinformation.

In this regard, Media and Information Literacy (MIL) education is of the utmost importance, and the need to impart knowledge about sources and veracity of information has never been more pressing – both for members of the journalistic community and also citizens in general.

So much of what is mistakenly considered news today is essentially ‘clickbait’; spurious ‘stories’ published online with the sole intent of generating traffic to certain websites.  Once shared through social networks, these articles are often seen by wide audiences, and whether willingly or not, they can become part of their general consciousness.

How often do you hear “Oh yes – I think I saw something about that,” or “yes I heard that as well,” from respondents who quite clearly have not looked into the apparent news they are discussing.

Misinformation is by no means a new phenomenon.  Propaganda, misinformation and disinformation have long been scourges of civilisations and societies from across the ages and the world, and those wishing to get a particular message across have regularly utilised the media resources available to them to spread the ‘truth’ they wish to be heard.

However, it seems we have now entered a new world in which ‘post-truth’ was the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries ‘word of the year,’ and ‘fake news’ is a regularly mentioned by journalists and politicians alike.

Truth has become less important than impression or perception, and facts are regularly replaced in favour of opinion and conjecture, meaning that responsible, quality journalism is absolutely essential for disseminating accurate, unbiased information.

Raising awareness and providing education

While it is a depressing and dangerous reflection of the current situation that words such as post-truth and fake news have entered common parlance, it can be argued that there is one positive - at least people are discussing these issues.

While ‘fake news’ is often erroneously used by certain political leaders to deride the media community, the silver lining to the current cloud of confusion and despair is that awareness of the importance of reading news critically is on the rise.

Media houses and organisations have a responsibility to contribute towards this awareness and promote the importance of critically understanding and engaging with media. 

Hence, World Press Freedom Day is an increasingly important date in the calendar of media organisations, providing an opportunity to use the social networks that are so often the focus of discussions, to raise awareness of the importance of engaging with them critically.

As UNESCO director general, Irena Bokova points out: “The stakes are clear.  We need original, critical and well-researched journalism, guided by high professional, ethical standards and a quality media education – combined with audiences that have the right media and information literacy skills.”

Without working towards these goals, we instead accept that new media and developments online will continue to be used to spread hatred, mistrust and event incite violence.

Journalists continuing to work without adhering to professional and ethical standards, combined with the ever increasing number of citizen journalists, bloggers and other writers online expressing opinions dressed as fact, represent serious threats to the human right of access to information.

Conflicts occurring across the globe continue to be heightened and exacerbated by irresponsible media coverage, and the inability of many readers to differentiate between fact and fiction continues to heighten divisions, promote hatred and encourage injustice and impunity.

The dangers that this poses to members of the media and society as a whole cannot be underestimated, and presently, the situation continues to worsen and have a significant effect on global politics, as has been witnessed in recent public discourse.

Fight the doom and gloom

At times it may seem that we are fighting a losing battle, and that the spread of misinformation and the ever increasing threat of ‘fake news’ mean that global media is essentially doomed.

Therefore it is absolutely essential to promote quality and responsible journalism and highlight the good work that continues to be produced by courageous and passionate journalists around the world.

Encouraging members of the media to continue to improve themselves and their industry as a whole is imperative if we are to defend the values of human rights and promote critical engagement with information being shared.

Simply because there are serious, fundamental flaws in the global press, and legitimate concerns about how the liberalisation of the press has contributed towards the current quagmire, does not mean that we should give up the honourable and important mission of promoting press freedom around the world. 

As the French philosopher Albert Camus argued: “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”


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